BWW Review: SHUCK 'N' JIVE, Soho Theatre
Shuck 'n' Jive, Cassiopeia Berkeley-Agyepong & Simone Ibbett-Brown's debut play, charts the journey through creating a piece of theatre that represents them as individuals, and not solely defined by the colour of their skin.
The show uses a meta-narrative to place the two - with Tanisha Spring playing Cassi and Olivia Onyehara as Simone - in the thick of this creative process, but parallel to the actual scenes that they're discussing making.
The show is labyrinthine. The barriers that the women face, but are trying to flee, are reinforced by the theatre industry and beyond. It seems like a maze without an exit, but the pair relentlessly search for a way out.
It begins with a series of conversations, which, after a while, begin to feel like a list of experiences; vital ones, if delivered a little too staccato. But then the show folds self-awareness into its fabric and, addressing this, takes on so many facets that the audience must work to keep up.
Conversations between the two via text message morph into a game show ('Fine Between Friends'); a dramatisation of a casting session (Simone is an opera singer, Cassi a musical theatre performer) into a minstrel dance, a blatant illumination of the white-centric industry's propensity to reinforce racial stereotypes, even when dressing its casting intentions up as 'diverse'.
Ranya El Refaey's set design, a white runway bookended by walls of props, allows for the fluidity the performers need to create clarity. Its simplicity makes space for the script, which is a warren of contradiction. How do the writers navigate the sense of responsibility they might feel to include the discussions about race in their work, whilst simultaneously trying to liberate themselves from being seen only in terms of theirs?
Anna Clock's soundscape haunts the production. It often feels at one with the dialogue, but then it will turn against it - sometimes recalling parts of black history through music when the women are performing a scene that isn't trying to evoke it.
Tanisha Spring and Olivia Onyehara are vivacious, energetic performers; their chemistry is tangible and infectious. They are two friends inviting the audience into their quest for creativity and conversation. They deliver the stark reality the play deals with, the exhausting battle against barriers, with a fine balance of wit and levity.
Shuck 'n' Jive holds a mirror up to the theatre industry and asks it, and its audience, to consider the systematic racism that's holding people back. It will start conversations, it will continue them, and whilst doing so it will also wrap you up in all that is great about new writing. It's full to the brim with humanity.
Photo Credit: Helen Maybanks